My tastes in gaming are certainly very fluid.  I find that as I continue to grow older and experience new things in life, the games I gravitate towards change alongside me.  In recent years for example, I've generally grown tired of the increasingly same-y AAA Western games that our industry continues to pump out in favor of Japanese and indie titles.  Personally, I feel as though AAA Western games try to make their games accessible and appealing to as wide an audience as possible (to generate as much money as possible), that they end up feeling generic and soulless as a result.  On the other end of the spectrum you have Japanese and indie developers, many of which acknowledge that their audience will be smaller by nature, and instead passionately craft a game that will resonate with a more niche audience.

2018 has been a fairly slow year for new video games in comparison to the onslaught of brilliant new titles that was 2017, but I have had the chance to kick back with some fantastic indie games on the Nintendo Switch so far.  I'm a bit more critical of the console than many gamers seem to be, but I do agree that its portability is very well suited to indie games.  However, the indie experience that stuck out with me the most so far this year was D Pad Studio's Owlboy. 

Owlboy originally released in late 2016 for the PC.  It's a title I always had my eye on, but after hearing it would eventually make its way to consoles, I decided to hold off on it.  It garnered a fair bit of attention (primarily from critics) when it originally released, largely due to its crazy 9 year long development cycle and its beautiful "hi-bit" pixel art (more on that in a bit).  However,after trying to look into the game a bit more since its recent Nintendo Switch port, I'm surprised to see that the game is still relatively niche, even in the indie scene, doomed to be overlooked at the expense of titles like Shovel Knight and Undertale.  And personally, I think that's criminal.  Owlboy certainly has its fair share of flaws, but it's also a game that, like many indie titles, had a lot of love, passion, and soul put into it, and it shows from everything from its aesthetics to its gameplay.  In an attempt to try and push the game further into the spotlight where it rightfully belongs, I'd like to point out the ways in which Owlboy stands out from its many pixelated peers, while also highlighting a few of its faults.

A "Hi-Bit" Adventure

Video games have generally steadily improved in graphical fidelity with the passage of time, progressing from simplistic pixelated visuals to almost photorealistic experiences.  However, ever since Capcom released Mega Man 9 in 2008, there's been an increased audience for games that intentionally "hold themselves back" and mimic the 8 or 16-bit artstyles of the 80's and 90's.  Part of this demand is nostalgia for "old school" visuals, but it's also true that well crafted pixel art can be timeless and beautiful.  For example, look at how 1995's Chrono Trigger has aged better than just about every game from the N64 and Playstation 1 era.  Or even look at the recently released remake of Secret of Mana for the Playstation 4.  Does it really look better than the pixelated SNES original?

High quality pixel art, in my opinion, generally ages really well, and can often look better than polygonal 3D graphics.

In particular, pixel art has become the new standard for indie gaming, largely because it's much easier to create pixel art than program full 3D character models.  While it's certainly true that there are many great looking indie games that utilize pixel art, like the aforementioned Shovel Knight and Hyper Light Drifter, there are also plenty of indies that don't try very hard to take full advantage of what pixel art is capable of - games like Uncanny Valley are guilty of this.

The main reason Owlboy made a bit of a splash back in 2016 was its visual style.  Art designer Simon Anderson describes it as "hi-bit" because while it's certainly pixel art, there's an extraordinary amount of detail put into every facet of the game's appearance.  The characters for example, are supremely expressive; rather than have two or three stock animations they fall back on for example, they have a variety of unique animations, some of which only play once or twice during the whole story to reflect the current scene.  The creators of Owlboy pointed out that the character designs and how they were reflected in the hi-bit style are meticulously designed so that you could tell a lot about a character simply by looking at them and watching how they behave, and it certainly shows.

It's not just the rich character animations that benefit from the "hi-bit" style though, but the environments themselves.  The world displays a richness of color that simply would have been impossible to produce on the SNES or anything close in power to it.  Pixel art is used by so many indie developers (many of which who don't even take full advantage of it) that in some ways, it has lost its charm.  Owlboy sets out to prove the world that pixel art still holds so much untapped potential, and I hope it will help set a new standard for what pixel art delivers in future video games.

Beautiful backgrounds like this are able to evoke emotions and sell the scale of Owlboy's world.  The "hi-bit" style truly is a treat for the eyes.

An Emotional Score

For a 8 to 10 hour "platforming adventure," Owlboy delivers a narrative that's more emotional than a lot of 50 hour RPGs.  Part of the reason the game is able to effectively convey the emotions it wants to draw out of the player is a rousing soundtrack by the talented Johnatan Geer.  While Owlboy's visuals are evocative of the 90's, the game eschews having a chiptune soundtrack, refusing to be bound by the limitations of that style.  The result is something that sounds much more modern and emotional; while chiptune music is generally well suited to producing head thumping beats perfect for action games, Owlboy's style does a better job of conveying a wide spectrum of emotions.

For example, the music that plays when players first leave Otus' hometown, "Tropos by Day" is an inspiring and upbeat track well suited to the beginning of an epic adventure.

That same track however, becomes something much more melancholy and reflective at night, which is perfect for the moments when the characters decide to sit around a campfire and ponder what's happened to them so far.

I'd love to share more tracks here, but it's worth going into the game hearing as little as them as possible in advance, so that the emotional impact when they do play is stronger.

A Group of Misfits, and Gameplay to Match

Something Owlboy does an admirable job of is having the story and gameplay compliment one another, and this is largely accomplished through character interaction.

The game's main protagonist is a young owl named Otus.  Otus feels like a lost gaming hero from the 90's.  His design is well crafted and says a lot about his personality, and like many heroes from the 16-bit era, Otus is a silent protagonist.  However, the game itself directly addresses this, as Otus is confirmed to be a mute.  Unable to speak for himself, Otus quickly becomes the target of bullying from his fellow owls, and even his mentor Asio, whom the young orphaned boy seems to look up to as a father.  This has a terrible impact on Otus' psyche, as he grows up to be insecure and not even realize his own strengths.

Luckily, Otus has one true friend in the form of Geddy.  A young soldier from his hometown, Geddy is a bit of an outcast himself as he isn't terribly strong, but he makes up for it in charisma and an endearing, unwavering loyalty to his best friend Otus.  The "Unstoppable Team" endure a shocking amount of tragedy and hardship over the course of their adventure, but their friendship stands strong in the face of it all, and they share an undeniably touching bond.  Over the course of their travels, the duo are joined by Alphonse, a defected villain with too much of a conscience to continue plundering with his former Sky Pirate allies, and a forth party member I won't spoil here.

These four make for some of my favorite video game protagonists in some time because they're all misfits.  They don't feel as though they belong with their peers for one reason or another, and instead find great comfort in the company of their newfound allies.  They all clearly care about one another and the world they're trying to save, and the bond the four shared was genuinely moving to me as a player.

Friendship and cooperation are thus major themes of Owlboy, and this is reflected through the gameplay itself.  The player assumes control of Otus, who as an owl, has the ability to effortlessly fly and soar through the air; though Owlboy is described as a "platforming adventure" you'll seldom have to spend time on the ground.  While this is about as fun as it sounds, the downside is that Otus can't actually attack any of the enemies he'll encounter.  This is where his buddies come into play, as Otus can pick them up, and the player can use the right analogue stick to control their ally's weapon and attack enemies while they also control Otus with the left stick to dodge their attacks.  The result is a sort of simplified twin stick shooter that gives Owlboy's combat a unique niche.

This cohesion of story and gameplay is also reflected through the teleporter item - found by the heroes early on in the story, this allows Otus to teleport his buddies to him no matter where they are, and even cycle between carrying the three of them.  This eliminates the frustration of constantly having to carry the lot of them from place to place; similar to how Ellie can't get hurt in The Last of Us, this ensures that your allies feel like an actual boon to the player and not a detriment, helping you to appreciate your friends that much more.

Owlboy stars a party of outcasts, and it's difficult not to root for their success.

A Story Worth Experiencing and A World Worth Exploring

Perhaps what shocked me the most about playing Owlboy is how surprisingly compelling the narrative was.  Owlboy is described as a "story driven platforming adventure" but considering its inoffensive and colorful visuals, I was expecting pretty standard, Super Mario-esque platforming fluff.  This isn't the case at all, as Owlboy contains a very mature tale anchored in recurring themes of loss, guilt, and self-blame.  Much of this has to do with Otus himself - as stated earlier, the poor kid his spent his entire life being told he's inadequate by his mentor and peers, so it's almost impossible not to root for him and want him to prove to the world that he's a hero, all while he struggles with his own poor self esteem.

However, much of it the strength of Owloby's narrative also has to do with the recurring tragedies that dot the plot.  This isn't a plucky game where the heroes always succeed and good always prevails.  Early on, the heroes face a massive defeat that was partially their fault, and it leaves them feeling guilty, angry, and partially unwilling to go on.  It was a surprisingly mature reaction to a major blow, and I appreciate that the protagonists didn't brush it off with overwhelming optimism.  The defeats the characters experience in their travels stick with them.  They help them grow and shape how they develop, and it's really rewarding to experience how these characters respond to the numerous hardships they face, and how they bring the four ever closer together.

Complimenting the strong narrative is equally high quality worldbuilding.  Owlboy has been compared by some to Studio Ghlibi films, and it's easy to see why.  They're both colorful, they both hide maturity and depth between their whimsical art styles, and they craft imaginative worlds for us to enjoy.  Owlboy's world isn't just a treat to look at, it's also an interesting locale to explore.  The game takes place in a sea of islands suspended in the air, with scattered civilizations and ruins dotting them.  As the game progresses, players will learn more about this world's backstory - the great Owl civilization whose ruins were left behind, the motivations behind the Sky Pirates threatening the world's safety, and Otus' own past.  And oftentimes, this was my greatest motivation to continue the game's story.  I felt like a real part of the game's world and wanted to learn more about it.  Owlboy is a game whose developers not only put a great amount of effort into the world's current presentation, but also its history and how it reached the state that players currently find it in, and learning more about the world is a great motivation to continue exploring it.

Great care was put into not only making Owlboy's world look beautiful, but also giving it a mysterious and compelling backstory.

But It's Got Some Flaws...

I've spent the entirety of this blog hyperbolically gushing about Owlboy, but I'd be remiss not to point out that it does have some blemishes that tarnish the overall experience.  I only point them out because I care about the game enough to be able to critically point out its faults.  These hiccups come in three forms - the combat, the progression system, and the ending.

First, while combat in Owlboy is generally a good time, as a general rule of thumb, enemies do a lot of damage, can be difficult to avoid, and stalk the player relentlessly.  While this gives the game a fair challenge, it can be frustrating in places such as the Strato area, which is full of narrow corridors and swarms of enemies; navigating to the end without getting hit is far more difficult than it should be.  Dying has so little penalty that it's almost meaningless (you're brought back to the start of the screen after a few seconds of black without losing any progress), but it still creates some frustrating gameplay experiences on more than one occasion.

Second, while Owlboy does have a progression system, it's not a terribly satisfying one.  As players explore new areas and dungeons, they unlock "Buccanary Coins" which can be used to obtain new gear from the wacky and abusive woman they're named after.  These upgrades come in three forms - additional health, cosmetic bonuses, and weapon upgrades.  Unfortunately, the health bonuses really just boil down to taking another hit, the cosmetic bonuses are lost as soon as Otus gets hit by an enemy, and the weapon upgrades will probably be unlocked so late in the game that they're borderline irrelevant.  This ultimately leaves the game's progression system feeling trivial.  Though the various ways in which Buccanary abuses her poor Boguin servants to give you said upgrades at least made me laugh more than once.

Finally, while Owlboy's story is a very satisfying one 90% of the way through, it drops the ball a bit at the ending.  There is one plot device in particular Owlboy goes to great lengths to not explain to the player, leaving the ending as a whole very vague and up to individual interpretation.  I generally enjoy narratives that are left up to interpretation - this enhances the longevity of the story as people debate over what they think happened for years to come.  However, Owlboy's ambiguity feels very unnecessary.  The decision to deliberately NOT explain key events of the game's backstory to the player is more frustrating than anything else, and worse still, the story is written in a way where it turns out the four protagonists didn't make as much of an impact on the story as it initially seems.  It left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth because after 9 hours of the protagonists trying to prove themselves, it turns out  that they didn't have as much agency in the narrative as it originally seemed.  Ultimately, I don't think this ending ruined the experience by any means, but it definitely wasn't the most satisfying way to close off an otherwise enjoyable experience.

I had a blast overall with Owlboy, but the vagueness of the ending didn't feel warranted.

In spite of its stumbles, I really enjoyed my time in Owlboy's world.  Like a good friend, spending time with it is occasionally frustrating, but you can't help but forgive it because of how heartfelt it is.  While it was a fun take on the dual stick shooter genre that was bolstered with beautiful visuals and an emotional score, it was ultimately the narrative that has stuck with me, and will stay with me the longest.  The story of four outcasts trying desperately to save a world whose inhabitants largely seem to look down on them while struggling with the guilt of their own failures made for a shockingly emotional journey, and one I won't forget any time soon. 

It took nine years to develop Owlboy.  Think about how much has changed in your own life within the past decade.  The developers of the game have stated that they channeled many of the emotions and experiences they've endured over the course of the game's lengthy development into the final product, and it shows.  Even if the game was occasionally frustrating, the amount of love and care this small team of indies put into their product burns brightly.  Owlboy is a reminder that in a sea of advertisements for the latest and grayest AAA shooter, it's important not to overlook the simple joy of playing a lovingly crafted indie game.